The Hmong, a gallant American ally, a "people in exile," a people of dignity

By Ed Marek, editor

March 14, 2010

A broad overview of East and Southeast Asian history from roughly the 13th century


East and Southeast Asia represent a pretty big chunk of our world. We'll mostly confine our area of interest to the mainland. The best way to approach the Hmong in Laos is to start by taking a macro historical look at this large area and whittle ourselves down. Such a macro look will introduce you to trends that affected both Laos and the Hmong. It will also reflect the enormous influence of the Chinese.

Many say that Laotian history began in the 13th century, though the territory today marked out as Laos boasted many ethnic populations gathered in communities in the river valleys and mountain areas before the 13th century. The region was beset by many migrations of different people with different religions. Many of its people came from China, largely from southern China. With that, of course, came considerable conflict. One of the huge challenges in studying Laotian history is that there are so few able to study the problem because they lack superior command of the various Chinese languages and scripts.

I will use the 13th century as a good place to start our macro look at the overall region of East and Southeast Asia.


This is a map roughly outlining the way Asia looked circa 1200 AD. Presented by wikipedia.

This is a most interesting map. I first draw your attention to China. China's history has been very turbulent. Dynasties and kingdoms came and went. I am not able to cover them here in any detail. I do want to say, however, that we are mainly interested in southern China. The ethnography of this region has a long road to go to be fully developed. There is even more to study with regard to Southeast Asia. There's plenty of history to discover and debate here.


It is worth pointing out that the ethnic flows throughout this region are vast, very complicated, and under daily revision. One of the technologies being employed is DNA analyses to try to figure it all out. The flows from China were huge, but the flows from Indonesia, Borneo, the Malay peninsula and India were also big players. Most of my descriptions will focus on the flows from China, but you will also be exposed to some from Borneo and even Polynesia and India.

For my purposes here, China in the 13th century was divided between the Jin Dynasty of the Jurchen Chinese and the Song Dynasty of the Han Chinese.


China 1142 AD. Presented by wikipedia.

The Song Dynasty ruled in China from 960-1279 AD. It succeeded five dynasties and ten kingdoms, just to show you what a turbulent region this was. Initially, the Song Dynasty occupied almost all China. but eventually lost control over northern China to the Jin Dynasty in the 12th century.

The Jurchens inhabited parts of Manchuria and northern Korea and became known as the Manchus. They established the Jin Dynasty in the 12th century, pushing the Song Dynasty to the south. Its region bordered with Mongol territories. In some respects, they had much in common with the Mongols, but they would later fight against the Mongols and lose control to the Mongols in 1234.

Much of the region taken by the Jin Dynasty was inhabited by Han Chinese. The map shows the area of the Song Dynasty following the loss of the north to the Jin. The Song were able to keep both the Jin and later the Mongols at bay. The region ruled by the Song Dynasty was able to expand rice cultivation in southern and central China and the population there grew rapidly, as it did in the Jin Dynasty area of control.

I need to backtrack just a bit to focus on what I think is important to Hmong history; that is, the Han Chinese.

Backtracking from the 13th Century, the Han Dynasty was the second imperial dynasty of China running from about 206 BC to 220 AD.


The Han Dynasty is shown here in dark brown reflecting the situation in 87 BC, courtesy of wikipedia. Many consider the four centuries of Han rule to be a golden age of Chinese history. Indeed some credit the Han with establishing Chinese history.

Despite all the dynasties and kingdoms that would surface and sink over time, to this day China's majority ethnic group call themselves the "Han people."


I think this is a fairly modern map of the ethnolinguistic groups on mainland China. The very large olive green area is mainly occupied by the Han Chinese. That is very significant, especially for the Hmong. The Han Chinese are native to China, they are arguably the largest ethnic group in the world, and today they constitute 92 percent of China.

For purposes of this report, keep the Han Chinese in mind.

Returning to the first map I showed in this section, let's head south out of China into what we know today as Southeast Asia.


This is a map roughly outlining the way Asia looked circa 1200 AD. Presented by wikipedia.

I'll start with the Khmer Empire, which "in the day," formed the nucleus of Southeast Asia.


The Khmer Empire at its height in the 13th century. Presented by The Ancient Web.

The Khmer Empire of Kambuja (802 AD - 1431 AD) was at the time the most powerful empire in Southeast Asia, extending into modern-day Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar and Malaysia. Modern-day Cambodia is but a small fraction of this former empire. Speaking broadly, the Khmer Empire absorbed most of its influences from China and India. In the 13th century, Buddhism arrived and flourished. As you will see as we press ahead, the influences from China came mostly from southern China, from the Han Chinese. The people of southern China had an enormous impact on all of what we know as modern-day Southeast Asia-Indochina.

Note Dai Viet and Champa on the "eastern shore," and the South China Sea. China ruled much of what is now Vietnam for most of the period 111 BC through 938 AD. The Chinese invaded in 111 BC. There were multiple revolts against them. Neither side could emerge a victor, so they declared a truce. Like much of the region, Vietnam was led by a host of dynasties.

In the beginning of the 10th century China began to fragment. One result was that the Ly Dynasty emerged in the early 11th century and established the name Dai Viet, "Great Viet." The Chinese called it Annam, "Pacific South." Most of its early inhabitants came from southern China. Furthermore, the Ly Dynasty set up bureaucracies patterned after the Chinese models. Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism were the main philosophical systems.

The Song Dynasty of Han Chinese officially recognized the Dai Viet monarch during the Ly Dynasty. Nonetheless, the Ly Dynasty in Dai Viet fought frequently against the Song Han Chinese. Then, in the 13th century the Mongols invaded, but their logistics lines were now too long and they were not accustomed to the hot, humid jungle environment of the region. Dai Viet held them off and defeated them.

Dai Viet concentrated on expanding into the south, to a kingdom known as Champa. Expansion was in their blood, beginning as soon as they achieved a truce with China. The Chams resisted the northerners, and once even made their way all the way to Dai Viet's capital. But at the end, Dai Viet gained a couple northern provinces of Champa in an area between modern day Hue and Da Nang. The Khmer eventually recovered Cham provinces taken by the Kingdom of Dai Viet and defeated the Ly Dynasty. The Tran Dynasty took over in the 13th century.

I told you this would be wild.

I wish to offer three observations here.

  • First, Dai Viet looks much like North Vietnam during the Indochina War.
  • Second, while Chinese influence was great in Dai Viet, there was no love lost between the two. During the American Indochina War, historians pointed this out to policy makers, that the North Vietnamese didn't get along with the Chinese. That's not to say the Chinese would not have invaded to save North Vietnam as they did in North Korea during that war; simply suffice to say there was friction between North Vietnam and China, often intense and violent friction.
  • Finally, Dai Viet always had an expansionist attitude toward the southern Champa Kingdom, which evolved into South Vietnam during the Indochina wars era.

Let's turn to Champa. First, I need to address ethnic Vietnamese, first known as the Lac Viet, and the country was known as Van Lang. Experts say their origins were from Chinese and Thai-Indonesian populations. They do share genetic relationships with several other people, including the Hmong.


Champa Po Nagar Temple in Nha Trang, present-day Vietnam. Presented by Today Cham Khmer Islam.

Champa established a kingdom in 192 AD. The people initially coming to this region are thought to have come mainly from Borneo, descended from people classified as Malayo-Polynesians. They settled, in the main, in the Mekong River Delta. Over time, there was a major Indian influence on the region. The people here became mightily involved in the trade of silk and spices between China, India and the Indonesian islands, even extending westward to Baghdad, Iraq. Champa was in her hey-day from the 7th to the 10th century because of this silk and spice trade. Of interest is that the Chams have traditionally been among the only people identified with Islam in Indochina.

Turbulence here was just as it was everywhere in the region. The Chams fought against the Han Dynasty of southern China, most specifically when the Hans were in Dai Viet. Early on, Han forces tried repeatedly to take the region but failed. Just as Dai Viet wanted to expand southward, the people of Champa tried to expand northward, at one point making it to the Red River Valley and into southern China. However, it slowly contracted and by the 8th century it corresponded roughly to central and southern Vietnam. Dai Viet invaded from the north in the 10th century and was largely repelled. The Khmers invaded from the west during the 12 century and occupied the southern Mekong Delta, which is where most of the Chams settled. Then, in the 13th century the Chams allied with the Khmers to beat back the Dai Viet again, and the Khmers withdrew from the Mekong Delta. The Mongols occupied Champa for five years but the Chams finally defeated them, largely because of the long lines of communication for the Mongols and the humid jungle environment with which they had little experience. However, all that said, slowly but surely the pressure from the north took its toll on Champa.


This is a most interesting map, presented by Viet Touch. For the moment, concentrate on how Champa's northern frontier fell southward over time, mostly due to the southward expansion from the north. You can see that in 1308 the northern frontier was between Hue and Da Nang. By 1653 it was in the area of Cam Ranh Bay and by 1832 Champa was territorially controlled by the Dai Viet.

If you think about it, even this top-level history helps explain what we encountered in Vietnam during our Indochina War.


The Khmer Empire at its height in the 13th century. Presented by The Ancient Web.

Let's turn to the "Tai Chiefdoms" on the map. The Tai Dam ethnicity is a Chinese ethnicity, a collection of ethnic groups of southern China who migrated over the mountains as the result of the growth of the Han Chinese. Tradition says their ancestral home was in the area of Muang Thaen or Dienbienphu, Vietnam, the place where the Viet Minh finally defeated the French. As an aside, the word muang in geographic terms is a basin surrounded by mountains, perfect for growing irrigated rice, and perfect for governing a contained area.

Multiple Tai groups came out of China into the western Indochina peninsula and set up a variety of kingdoms. Indeed, the states thus formed were called "Muang" and some of these ended up in what we now know as northern Laos and northern Thailand, largely in the Chao Phraya Valley. Those Muang formed west of Annam or northern Vietnam had a long history of self-government. Between the 14th and 15th centuries they came under the protection of the Lao of Luang Prabang, the latter of which we will address when discussing Laotian history.


Pagan Kingdom circa early 12th century. Presented by wikipedia.

Finally, the Pagan Kingdom. A people known as the Burmans left southern China, from the area of present-day Yunnan, and started along the Irrawaddy River during the 9th century. They expanded their holdings on both sides of the Irrawaddy and to tributaries to the north, close to China, and to the south close the Upper Malay peninsula. By the late 12th century, most of mainland Southeast Asia was under some degree of control by the Pagan Kingdom and Khmer Empire. The Pagan Kingdom started to decline in the 13th century and then came the Mongols, who had a great deal of problems with the environment, but eventually defeated the Pagan Kingdom. The kingdom broke up into many regions, each with a king, most dependent on China, and it would take some 250 years for Burma to reunify them all.


The Mongol invasions, presented by History of Jihad

I've mentioned the Mongol invasion a few times. Weaving the Mongol invasions into what I have just described would simply be too much for me to handle. They would invade all the way to modern day Hungary. Incredible! There's a good wrap-up with some very useful maps about their invasions at Battles & Maps, produced in The Netherlands.

I will say that the Mongol invasion of China lasted more than 60 years, starting in the 13th century. Their invasion extended into Russia, Europe, Korea, Japan, Burma and Southwest Asia with multiple forays into Southeast Asia. These latter forays were among the last. The main reason they had problems in the south was that the environment there was vastly different from what they were used to at home and throughout most of their empire. In the 13th century, they swooped through Dai Viet (Annam). The Mongols had a more difficult time with Champa, whose leaders fought a fierce guerrilla war. Again as time passed, both Dai Viet and Champa gave the Mongols a very tough time and they all decided to negotiate a settlement. The Mongols suffered problems similar to those encountered with Dai Viet and Champa in the Pagan Kingdom, but they managed to take over. That's about all I will say.

I know even at this top level this has been a lot to digest. There is just one more thing I want to address: rivers. Rivers fascinate me. In this case, how go the rivers so go many of the migrations.


Tibet is the starting point for many of the rivers flowing through Southeast Asia.


There is some debate about whether some of these rivers originate in China or Tibet; I'll leave that to the geographic and cartographic experts and politicians and simply say as a broad view that the Mekong, Salween, Yangtze, Yartung-Tsangpo-Brahamaputra all originate there. You can see by this map why the debate might exist.


This is a photo of the Himalayas from the Endeavor Shuttle. It is from these mountains that the rivers flow, and much of this mountain chain resides in southern Tibet. With the exception of Southeast Asia, the Mongols tended to invade to the north of the Himalayas.


Perhaps the best and more accurate way of describing all this is that the aforementioned rivers originate in the Tibetan Plateau.

The Xi and Red rivers originate in China. The Chao Phraya originates in modern day Thailand. The Irrawaddy originates in modern day Myanmar. That said, both these latter two rivers originate in locales close to the southern portion of the Himalayas. With regard to Southeast Asia, the Mekong Basin passing through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam bears enormous focus --- the river is 2,700 miles long.

Congratulations to those of you who stuck with me through this historical perspective. It was not easy to assemble and perhaps tough to digest. As we press ahead, some of what has been reported here will pop up and help you fit things together.

Let's move on next to
Laotian history, the Hmong migration and the French arrival in Indochina